Not many folks would find inspiration in a 200-volt electric shock that led to a hospital visit, but then again we’re not the lead singer of Titus Andronicus. Along with Patrick Stickles’ brush with the bad side of a live current, much has transpired in the two years time between Titus Andronicus’s civil war-themed The Monitor and their live-recorded Local Business (XL Recordings). The band shed a couple members and welcomed some guests to record, there was a tour gone bad with the Pogues, and Stickles made a curious cover of Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games.” He also discovered he had Selective Eating Disorder, a unique medical condition that renders individuals who have it limited to eating extremely select foods. Stickles filled MTV Hive in on all their Local Business and recent events.
Amy Klein and David Robbins recently left the band. Was this surprising?
Well, when you’ve been in this business as long as I have, and have experienced as much member turnover as we have, there are really no surprises anymore. You’ve got to assume that everybody’s gonna quit at some point, you know? We’ve had like 20 members now, or something like that, so it comes with the territory, I suppose. Obviously it would’ve been nice to keep them around but so it goes.
The band as it exists now all play on Local Business and will also play live?
That’s right, which is a first for us.
Eric [Harm]’s dad’s on it, and so is Owen Pallett. How did those collaborations happen?
We met Owen Pallett at a festival that we both played at, found out he was a fan of the band. He’s pretty much the best violinist going in the indie rock game, so we figured that he would be a great guy to get involved, and happily he was glad to do it. And he’s a really nice fellow, obviously really talented. And Eric’s dad, he’s been playing harmonica for a lot of years, and he’s joined us on stage a few times. We just thought it would be fun to make it a little bit more of a family affair on a couple of songs.
On the not-so-fun side you were hit with a 200-volt electric shock while rehearsing with the band. How did that happen?
I believe what happened was there were some guys from Consolidated Edison working outside the practice space, digging in the ground and I don’t know what exactly they were up to, but I created like a circuit with the microphone and the guitar and myself, my mouth, and there was some kind of power surge and I was just, was zapped with it. And then the lights went out for a second, and it was a very surprising thing. It was a shock to be sure. But I really didn’t get that hurt, I was mostly just really surprised, and rattled and shaken up.
Did you fly back? What happened?
I could hardly even tell you, it was an out of body experience sort of just kind of [makes a humming noise] I kind of like froze up for a second, and then after that I was just like “Woo,” really loopy.
I imagine that fueled the song “(I Am the) Electric Man.”
I wrote that song while I was waiting to get checked out for it in the hospital. So it was like a moment in time, moment of inspiration, so I guess it was worth it. You gotta take inspiration wherever you can find it.
How do they treat electric shock?
There was really nothing to treat, they just wanted to make sure I wasn’t really messed up. And I wasn’t, so all’s well that ends well, I say. It’s not something that I look forward to doing again, but you know, that’s life sometimes.
What inspired the Lana Del Rey cover? It seemed kind of random.
My friend and former roommate Matt [Elkin], who plays in this great band the So So Glos turned me on to the song. I didn’t think much of it first, but after listening to it a few times I could kinda identify with it … thinking about times that I’ve been emotionally available to people I’ve been in relationships with, the times when I was more interested in playing video games instead of paying attention to my significant other, feeling bad about it. So covering the song was a little penance. And it was the end of the year, that was one of the big songs of the year. Just a pretty, pretty song, something I felt that I wanted to do. It felt good to sing it.
When I watched the video it seemed you were joking around.
No, no definitely not. I was dead serious. I guess if it seemed like I was joking around it’s because I’m naturally a goofball I suppose. It was an attempt at seriousness.
With your new album, what exactly does “Local Business is of the earth” mean [from your press release]? It seems like a lot of it is inspired by personal events, like “(I Am the) Electric Man”?
We were going for more of a natural kind of real rock ‘n’ roll band sound instead of like a highly manufactured, big production sort of sound like we did on our first two albums. I wanted it to be more like the work of human hands. You know, more like the live concert, instead of like a really studious studio thing.
So going into recording, was it a little looser in approach?
The idea was that we would do it more live. Like on the first two albums, we would do it like record the drums and then record all the guitars, and then record like a ton of other instruments. This time we did everything playing at once, the drums and the bass and the three guitars all playing together, no computers. I mean we recorded it on a computer, but no like click tracks or samples or sequencers or anything. Going for just more of a live song, more “of the earth.”
Did you enjoy that more than getting into the more technological studio aspects like you’ve done in the past?
In a way, we enjoyed it, it was more natural, more like what we do every day while we’re on tour. But it was also kinda exhausting because it’s harder to get everyone to do it perfect at the same time. So we did a lot of takes, it took a lot of days of playing the songs over and over so that got to be a little tedious at times.
Did any of the songs end up being in just a couple takes, or did you play all of them that many times?
Oh no. Well, the first bunch of takes were horrible, we decided later. And most of it came from the very last couple days that we were recording like that, and in a lot of cases the last take we did, like take 100 or something, would end up being on the record.
You also get personal with “My Eating Disorder,” about Selective Eating Disorder, which is a real thing.
Yeah, it’s a real thing
How did you find out what it was, obviously you’ve lived with it your whole life, but how did you find out that there are other people like you suffering from this?
I read article about it in the newspaper that a friend forwarded to me. Before that I hadn’t realized that other people lived with it like I have. I thought it was just a funny, strange thing about myself, but it was very validating to find out that there was other people suffering from it, and it made me wanted to validate myself through song.
Do you feel like you got some catharsis from that?
A lot of the times, you know, the hardest things to write about are the most rewarding in the end. Or if you feel like it’s a hard thing to do, that’s a good sign that you should be doing it.
Is there anything you can do about it? Can you try to reintroduce new foods?
Hasn’t happened so far, but hopefully one day I’ll be able to improve. It’s a very daunting, scary thing. It’s the kind of thing where you can’t really, it’s hard to imagine an alternative you know when you’ve lived a certain way your whole life.
It seems there is a lot of existentialism and anti-consumerism on Local Business, but the music can be pretty upbeat and there’s some humor, too. Is this a case of “if you don’t laugh, you’d have to cry” kind of a thing?
You could say that. It’s just really about having you know a broader emotional palette, you know? Life is full of all sorts of different feelings, and you know as far as the upbeatness of it goes that’s more fun to play sometimes. We’ve discovered after you know years of playing, it’s just a little more fun to rock out that way. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that upbeat, happier themes are more important to discuss, or more conducive to creativity. But it’s about embodying the wider emotional spectrum.
There are some bleak, unsettling themes on it, but do you feel Local Business also offers hope?
I like to think so. It’s about trying to determine your own values, your own morality, the freedom that comes from life. Life can sometimes seem meaningless, but out of that void of meaningless there can come great freedoms, hope, as you say.
Is there one song in particular that you think is pretty hopeful?
I think they’re all kind of equally hopeful. I think “(I Am the) Electric Man” is positive song on the record, that’s a moment of pure positivity.
It’s sounds like a superhero name.
You can think of it that way, but it’s the sort of superhero that anybody can be. As long as they’re willing to be a conduit for the energy of the people around them, you know. There’s always a choice, you can decide to do it, it’s not something that has to be given to you, you can just take it, and that’s the hopeful thing about it … It’s a choice to be the superhero.
OK, so for those of us who are trying to quit smoking what does “Tried to Quit Smoking” offer by way of advice? It sounds more like an apology.
Yeah, it’s not really — I still haven’t been able to quit smoking. That’s just a song about taking accountability for your many flaws, saying you know, “I might of tried to be a better person and failed,” but once again that’s just life, there’s just really no two ways about it. Nobody’s perfect, everybody has their failings, their shortcomings, but rather than, you know, you’re never going to be perfect, so the least you can do is try and be responsible, be accountable for the times that you failed to be the person that you oughta be, you know?
I keep failing at quitting.
Same here, it’s tough. They get their hooks in you.
One of the ironic things about that song, it’s almost a 10 minute song, just long enough to finish a cigarette I realized as I smoked one while listening.
I haven’t thought about that.
I assumed that wasn’t intentional.
Maybe it’s long enough to smoke your last cigarette.
That’s a good way to look at it. It would be great if everyone who wants to quit smoking by the time they reached the end of the record, quit.
That would be a nice thing, but I don’t see that happening.
Local Business is out 10/23 via XL Recordings. Stream it now at NPR.com.